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Papa John's pizza names Shaquille O'Neal to its board of directors

Shaquille O'Neal has signed on to pitch pizza-chain Papa John's hard-hit brand. The former professional basketball center and NBA Hall of Famer is also joining the troubled pizza chain as a member of its board of directors and as an investor in nine Papa John's restaurants in the Atlanta, Georgia, area, the company announced Friday.

"Shaquille has an excellent entrepreneurial background, including as a restaurant franchise owner," Jeff Smith, chairman of the Papa John's board, said in the company's announcement. Smith is CEO of Starboard Value, an activist fund that recently invested $200 million in Papa John's, while placing him at its board's helm.

O'Neal owns a Krispy Kreme doughnut franchise in Atlanta, as well as Big Chicken, a fast-casual restaurant in Las Vegas, and Shaquille's, a fine-dining restaurant in Los Angeles.

Papa John's this month settled a lengthy legal feud with its controversial founder, John Schnatter, whose use of a racial slur during a conference call led to scandal that battered the brand's image and worsened its sales slide.

"Papa John's is building a better culture, and I want to be a part of improving the company from the inside out," O'Neal said in a statement.

"If you want to enjoy great pizza and feel loved by the people that serve the pizza, you can come back home now," O'Neal said later on Friday in an interview with the Associated Press. "'The Daddy' is here."

"Papa John" Schnatter suing Papa John's

The problems at Papa John's started in 2017, when Schnatter criticized the NFL's leadership and blamed protests by football players for falling pizza sales. Last year it was revealed that he used a racial slur during a media training session run by a company consultant. Schnatter apologized for the slur and the company scrubbed his face from the company's logo and pizza boxes. He is still the Louisville, Kentucky-based company's biggest shareholder.

O'Neal said Schnatter's comments were "not acceptable," and said he told the company's executives that it needed more diversity in its leadership. He says he's the first African-American to join Papa John's board.

"We want to create a culture to let everybody know that they're loved, accepted and wanted," O'Neal said.

Papa John's International Inc. said it will pay O'Neal more than $8 million in cash and company stock for the three-year endorsement deal. Wall Street seems to think it's a winning partnership. Shares of Papa John's soared more than 6 percent Friday to almost $50 a share, although still down from a high of $87 at the end of 2016.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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